GOP House challengers, outraised by Democrats for months, make last-minute sprint in third quarter

Funds at critical time keep some races competitive

Utah House candidate Burgess Owens, who spoke at the Republicans' virtual national convention in August, is one of five challengers who raised more than $2 million during the third quarter. (Photo Courtesy of the 2020 Republican National Committee/Getty Images)
Utah House candidate Burgess Owens, who spoke at the Republicans' virtual national convention in August, is one of five challengers who raised more than $2 million during the third quarter. (Photo Courtesy of the 2020 Republican National Committee/Getty Images)
Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:21pm

Two dozen Republican House challengers in competitive and targeted districts reported raising more than $1 million in the three months that ended Sept. 30, hauls that rivaled and in some cases surpassed Democratic opponents who earlier in the cycle had been cleaning up in the money race.

Reports for the period that started July 1 show GOP candidates benefited from a surge of cash during a crucial stretch for campaigns seeking to make closing arguments to voters. The money could allow them to respond to Democrats whose financial advantages allowed them to operate more robust television advertising and voter mobilization campaigns throughout the summer. 

But Democratic incumbents on the whole still outraised their GOP challengers. And with historic numbers of early or absentee ballots expected to be cast weeks before Election Day, it’s an open question whether the boost to GOP candidates arrived in time to make a difference.  

The average House GOP challenger in a competitive race raised more than $1 million in the third quarter, nearly four times more than the average haul for the second quarter, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of fundraising reports for districts both parties are targeting and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as competitive. 

But the average Democratic incumbent still outraised his or her challenger, pulling in $1.3 million from July through September, with 8 incumbents in battleground districts raising more than $2 million in the third quarter. The average Democratic incumbent ended the quarter with more than $2 million on hand while the average GOP challenger had $606,000 on hand.

Closing the gap?

Republican strategists said the cash infusion could help close the gap in a number of tight races that the GOP needs to win to narrow the Democrats’ House majority. Republicans need a net gain of 17 seats to flip the House. 

Republican challengers reporting huge hauls in the third quarter include five who raised more than $2 million: Wesley Hunt, who raised $2.8 for his race against Lizzie Fletcher in Texas’ 7th District; Burgess Owens, who raised $2.7 million and is challenging Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th District; Alek Skarlatos, who raised $2.6 million for his challenge against Peter DeFazio in Oregon’s 4th District;  Nancy Mace, who is challenging Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st District and raised $2.5 million; and Genevieve Collins who raised $2 million for her race against Colin Allred in Texas’ 32nd District. Collins' total includes a $795,000 loan she made to her campaign.

“This fundraising success definitely puts us in a position where we could pick up more seats than we would have been able to had it not materialized,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Bob Salera. “We would love to see them raising a million dollars every quarter, but the fact that it’s coming now, when they are doing their fall ad buys, is huge.”

But Democrats were skeptical, and even some Republicans admitted privately that they have a lot of ground to make up. That task has become especially daunting as President Donald Trump’s poll numbers have lagged, eliminating hopes of a boost for down-ballot candidates in many targeted districts. 

“It may not be too late, but if you haven't been up and spending early you have let a lot slip away,” said Mike Fraioli, a Democratic campaign consultant. 

Raising more than $1 million in a single quarter was considered exceptional in House races until the 2018 midterms, when Democrats in historically red districts tapped into anti-Trump enthusiasm to raise enormous totals, much of it through small-dollar donors. 

That momentum has continued into this cycle, prompting alarm from GOP leaders about their diminishing chances of taking back the House. 

Republicans credited much of their third quarter success to the sudden viability of the year-old WinRed online donation platform, modelled after the Democrats’ enormously successful ActBlue donation processing program that launched in 2004.

WinRed reported over $620 million in donations in the third quarter, more than double the $276 million it collected in the second quarter, according to an October memo. Those results include donations to Trump and Senate candidates as well.  But ActBlue is still easily outpacing its Republican counterpart. It raised $1.3 billion in the third quarter. 

Stepping it up

Republican strategists said the numbers could also show that donors who were disengaged during the early months of the pandemic have become more energized as Election Day nears and some candidates return to small, in-person fundraising events. 

“Part of it is attributable to Republican donors seeing the kind of numbers Democrats are putting up and realizing they need to step up and help these candidates,” Salera said. 

Oklahoma’s 5th District, in suburban Oklahoma City, is one example of a race in which the money could make a big difference. Trump won the district by 14 points in 2016, and freshman Democrat Kendra Horn has been considered a top target since she won her 2018 race by less than 2 points.  

Horn’s Republican opponent, state legislator Stephanie Bice, emerged bruised and broke from an August runoff and was forced to take a weeks-long hiatus from cable ads while Horn, who has reported million dollar-plus hauls throughout the cycle, ran a steady stream of ads emphasizing her cross-party appeal. 

In the third quarter, both Bice and Horn raised roughly $1.5 million, but Bice narrowly outraised Horn, besting the incumbent by $67,000. 

Cam Savage, a consultant for Bice’s campaign, said the strong quarter has kept the race competitive. A series of recent polls show neck-and-neck margins. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up

“We have been able to quickly get to parity and outspend our opponent in some areas in a matter of weeks,” he said. “We will never catch up with what was spent over the course of the campaign. Everyone thinks this race will be extremely close. But we won't be outspent down the stretch. That is something I would not have told you was possible in August.”

Savage said he took a page from the Democratic playbook and invested early on in creating a file of small-dollar donors the campaign could turn to again and again.

“That theory has really worked,” he said. “We have grown an online presence and the ability to raise money online in a way that not a lot of Republicans have, and it has been successful.”

Other Republican campaigns, such as Hunt's in Texas, attributed their strong quarters to candidates’ specific strengths. 

”Wesley has done well online and I think the reason behind that is getting back to his strength as a candidate and his personal story,” said Hunt’s campaign manager, Jim Hilk. 

Democrats maintain advantage

But Democrats had already made such formidable strides that is unclear whether one strong quarter for Republicans will change the equation. 

“Democrats have outworked, outhustled, and outraised Republicans all cycle long,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Robyn Patterson.

Democratic strategists noted the money isn’t flowing to the races where Republicans would need it the most. Republican Yvette Herrell, for example, who is challenging freshman Democrat Xochitl Torres Small in a rural New Mexico district seen as one of the best pick-up opportunities for Republicans, raised $1 million, but that was less than half of Torres Small’s $2.4 million. On Friday, Gonzales changed the rating on the Herrell-Torres Small race from Tilt Democrat to Toss-up.

The GOP totals don’t come close to the bounty that fueled  the 2018 wave. In the third quarter of that year, 110 Democratic challengers outraised their GOP opponents. 

This cycle, Democratic incumbents have continued to dominate fundraising. As of Sept. 30, these House Democrats in competitive and targeted races had raised more than $258 million for the 2020 cycle. Their GOP challengers have raised a combined $124 million.

All that money has meant that Democrats have been able to overwhelm their Republican challengers even in districts where Republicans have made strides. Hunt, for example, is on track to be outspent on television by more than $3 million, Bice by $1.7 million and Mace by almost $2 million, according to a Democratic strategist who works on House campaigns. 

But the race isn’t over yet. 

Savage, the consultant for Bice in Oklahoma’s 5th District, said he still hasn’t seen evidence of a cash infusion that always comes in the last days of any campaign. 

“I like to call that the magic box money,” he said. “Like, I have a magic box under my desk and every time I look at it there's more money. That hasn't started yet. But I hope to check that box in October, and I hope it’s full.” 

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